Manila talks down China tensions 

The Philippines and China have played down a warning by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte that Beijing would go to war if the Philippines drilled for oil in the South China Sea.

Duterte has been facing domestic criticism for being too soft on Beijing over the territorial dispute.

The outspoken leader visited Beijing for talks with President Xi Jinping last week and claimed Xi warned him there would be conflict if he tried to drill for oil in the resource-rich region.

Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said the meeting was frank and friendly, centred around preventing conflict, not threatening it.

“The conversation was very frank. There was mutual respect, there was mutual trust,” Cayetano told reporters.

“The context was not threatening each other, that we will go to war. The context is how do we stabilise the region and how do we prevent conflict. I will not contradict the president’s words. I am just telling you … my interpretation: there was no bullying or pushing around, it was not a threat.”

Duterte flew to Russia on Monday to meet his “hero”, seek arm deals and steer his nation’s foreign policy further away from Washington.

The five-day trip marks a rapid improvement in relations with Russia since Duterte came to power and began dismantling alliances with the US, which he accuses of hypocrisy and bullying.

“Russia must cease to be at the margins of Philippine diplomacy. Over-dependence on traditional partners has limited our room to manoeuvre in a very dynamic international arena,” Duterte told the Manila media.

“This is a strategic oversight that has led to many missed opportunities for our country. I am determined to correct this.”

Duterte has described Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as his “favourite hero” and proclaimed a bond because of shared passions like guns and hunting.

The 72-year-old has scaled back annual military exercises with the US, barred his forces from joint patrols in the South China Sea and called for the withdrawal of American troops from the archipelago.

“My visit underscores the independence of the Philippines’ foreign policy and the firm resolve to broaden the horizons of friendship and cooperation with other nations,” the bombastic president said.